What’s The Point of Grabs?

They've been among the biggest talking points of the snowboarding Olympics so far, but why are grabs so important?

Above: Arthur Longo sends a method out the pipe | PC: Sam McMahon

First things first: if you’ve cleared the one click hurdle and actually made it past the pot-stirring headline, congratulations. As a reward, I’ll assuage your immediate fears and tell you straight out the gate, grabs are sick.

They are intrinsic to snowboarding, and specifically the importance of style within our culture. Take the NBA’s iconic red, white and blue logo of Jerry West dribbling – there are so many potential nominees for snowboarding’s equivalent silhouette. To name but a few: Jamie Lynn’s method,  Ingemar Backman’s backside air, Elias Elhardt’s cab-1 melon, Victor Daviet’s inverted stalefish, Sage’s holy crail. So many stills and frame grabs exist that both exemplify and elevate snowboarding as a whole, standing as marker points in the sport’s heritage.

“Done right, grabs boost a trick to new levels of visual ASMR, and the very best stand tall on their own even when decoupled from spins”

Done right, grabs boost a trick to new levels of visual ASMR, and the very best stand tall on their own even when decoupled from spins. Done wrong, they stink, in such an easy way to see that even the mainstream press have picked up the stench emanating from Zhangjiakou this week.

Another disclaimer: there are no shots being fired at Maxence Parrot from this corner. His story over the last four years speaks for itself, and it’s unfortunate that the latest chapter has ended in the way it has. He was out there, doing his job, made an error, adjusted for it and the world goes crazy. Cue rants and hot takes* on broadcasts, and social feeds (and, next week, podcasts, truly the long range semaphore of modern communication).

*Having filmed extensively with Mathieu Crepel over the last few years, I found it perhaps uniquely hilarious that his take on the debacle was to throw the camera guys under the bus.

Christian Haller | PC: Ed Blomfield

Max probably went double knee in order to avoid death by triple cork to the face rather than to fool the judges, and no doubt will be more devastated than anyone else right now. Well, maybe not – somehow the snowboard community is still in collective shock at the IOC’s ability to shaft us. At this point, Thomas Bach might as well rub his balls on our allotted gold medals as part of the opening ceremony – we’d still behave like a guy who repeatedly sends his bank details to email scam artists. “You’ll never believe this, but that Nigerian prince stole all my money, again!”

But it got me thinking about something I’ve long pondered: why do we fetishise grabbing the board, at all costs, so hard?

Knee grabs and boot grabs clearly stink, but only marginally more than the grabs that accompany most of the 1440s, 1620s and 1800s that make up the podiums at modern freestyle events. “Indy” and “mute/Weddle” grabs that, rather than taking place in the centre of the board, end up crushed so hard against the rider’s boot that they may as well be on the toe. More often than not, the opposing arm gets wrapped underneath the rider’s knees. It’s more utilitarian than stylish, a means of getting round faster.

“At this point, Thomas Bach might as well rub his balls on our allotted gold medals as part of the opening ceremony”

In current competition formats, grabs are scored kind of like a multiplier in THPS – leave them out and your score goes down, double grab and your score goes up. For the latter, see Billy Morgan’s bronze medal big air runs in Pyeongchang: the Weddle/tail combo certainly made the trick more technical, though it’s debatable if it made it ‘better’. I remember Jamie Nicholls saying he realised he could score more in FIS contests by grabbing spins off rails, which struck me as an odd quirk that hadn’t really evolved organically from snowboarding.

And this is where my vague point starts to coalesce: grabbing your board in a contest run now seems to be more about ticking a box than creating something greater than the sum of its parts. And if we’re at the point where Olympic slopestyle judges – aka people who are professionally-paid to look at snowboarding – can’t differentiate between a switch mute and a double knee grab in real time… what’s the point? To the naked eye, there literally wasn’t any difference.

Jake Blauvelt | PC: Connor Chapman

Back when snowboarding contests were held in hand-dug ditches and throwing a 720 was considered a bit ‘spin to win’, grabs made a huge difference. They let a rider put their own stamp on a trick and really gave the judges, well, something to judge. Some modern names like Stale Sandbech continue this tradition and can perform big spins with properly done melons, stalefishs, nose grabs, tail grabs and all the other good stuff, but formats rarely reward them with podium places. So, again, what’s the point?

I’d wager that most diehard snowboard fans couldn’t tell you what non-knee-based grabs were awarded medals in China this weekend, most of us will refer to the winning tricks as ‘Zoi’s back 10’ or ‘Su Yiming’s 1800’, omitting the grab and the nuance. In Sochi 2014, Wancheng Shi made the halfpipe finals despite some horrific tindy grabs and Shaun White consistently grabbed boot – since then nothing much has swayed me from thinking that from the judges’ perspective, they’re just looking to see a hand vaguely go vaguely near the board.**

**Of course, here I’m omitting Sage Kotsenburg’s golden run including the infamous Holy Crail, and I’m sure there are other examples like this, but in the overwhelming majority modern formats reward big spins over creative flair.

“Back when snowboarding contests were held in hand-dug ditches and throwing a 720 was considered a bit ‘spin to win’, grabs made a huge difference”

I don’t think any one group is to blame here. In the main, riders are trained up to do a set of tricks, judges reward them. If everyone does the same grabs, then it naturally just comes a case of “well, did he/she grab the board or not?” Course designs have gotten more creative, but even in last month’s Natural Selection most of the riders whittled down the venue’s infinite options to the same three or four big jumps. People instinctively know that ‘harder’ basically equals ‘better’ as far as scored runs go, even if the result isn’t quite what the diehard fans want to see. It’s telling that perennial fan favourites like Arthur Longo – clearly amongst the best snowboarders ever to have graced the planet – rarely get seen in a bib because there’s still not a format that rewards them for riding the way they do. Arthur always grabs the centre of his board, by the way.

This doesn’t exactly help to ease snowboarding into the mainstream either. Last night I had to explain to a friend’s mother why Parrot’s knee grab was ‘bad’ and why board grabs are ‘good’ – she was polite about it but clearly her impression of me was along the lines of “Poor chap, he’s clearly got a lot going”.

Fin Bremner | PC: Frazer Rennie

Also not helpful: the fact that not grabbing is clearly pretty rad as well. Back to the Natural Selection, where one of the most talked up tricks post-event was Kevin Backstrom’s front three shifty-shifty (his straight air backside shifty also makes a good case for snowboarding’s NBA-style silhouette). Torstein missed the grab on one of his backside 720s and it still looked god-like (and to give the Olympic judges a little respite, voice-of-the-core Pat Bridges appeared to have not noticed the missed grab even after two slo mo replays). I can’t get enough of what Jake Simpson’s arms are doing in this clip, and they’re nowhere near his board. If not grabbing can look this good, what’s the point of mandating it?

I’m not suggesting for a second that we should forget about grabs, the opposite in fact, we should properly celebrate them again. The beauty of the grab was always that there is no point to them – unlike skating or surfing, bindings ensure that the board is never gonna go anywhere. They’re a flourish, an expression.

We should acknowledge that, done right, they are aesthetic miracles, but they’re also superfluous. David Hokney’s use of colour made his art famous, but Ansel Adam’s photos are no less beautiful for being black and white.

“I’m not suggesting for a second that we should forget about grabs, the opposite in fact, we should properly celebrate them again”

If someone can one day figure out how to make a switch backside 1620 look better without a grab, they should be rewarded for it, not penalised for not filling in the ‘did a grab’ box on the scorecards. And until that happens, judging should reward grabs that elevate a trick instead of treating them as mandatory – it’ll only serve to encourage riders to do them.

It’s a shame for everyone that the men’s Olympic slopestyle finals went down the way they did, but since snowboarding joined hands with the five rings no one really took any steps to ensure that it wouldn’t. The riders, the judges, the course directors and the IOC have all pushed this side of snowboarding to the point where something as simple, crucial and pointless as a grab can cause such a fuck up.

I guess that’s my point.

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